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FELA: The Man. The Music. The Show!

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FELA: An Iconoclast Revisited

” We all make music; people can choose from that what they like. Every musician likes his own music the best, man. I don’t want to attack that. I don’t mind criticism, I can handle it, but most people can’t.” Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Afrobeat-Jazz: Fela on his Saxophone

FELA! At the Eugene O’Neill Theater on Broadway ~ FELA! The Man Behind the Music

Fela Anikulapo(Ransome)Kuti ~ Gentleman via n3ph3sh

Fela Anikulapo(Ransome) Kuti – Lady

It was when I was in a police cell at the C.I.D. (Central Intelligence Division) headquarters in Lagos; the cell I was in was named “The Kalakuta Republic” by the prisoners. I found out when I went to East Africa that “Kalakuta” is a Swahili word that means ‘rascal’. Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Several weeks ago, I saw the musical – Fela! What a show! Based on the artistic life and political activism of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the inimitable musical genius, Afrobeat-jazz King and thorn-in-the-flesh to several ruling military governments in Nigeria, the musical about Nigeria’s most revolutionary entertainer pulls you right into the syncopated sounds and gyrating hips of the ecstatic dancers and demands that you pay attention – NOW. The show, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, who co-wrote the book with Jim Lewis, is phenomenal. Jim wrote additional lyrics to complement original songs by Fela that were used in the show.

Everything about the show brought back a flood of memories for this Naija girl; the stage, the pounding, rhythmic afrobeat music, exquisite dancing, the yabis/chitchat, lighting, rich colors and clothing, and super high energy were reminiscent of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s weekly shows at Afrika Shrine -The Shrine, a night club across from his Kalakuta Republic (a residential compound/recording studio) in Lagos. The first thing I did, at intermission, was give Bill T. Jones, Director and Choreographer of this superlative production, a big hug and thanked him for exercising sensitivity and accuracy in bringing Fela’s magical music and story front and center to Broadway after so many years. But, let me not get ahead of myself…


“I refuse to live my life in fear of anyone or anything…” Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Femi Kuti and Dancers : Keeping the legacy alive

Fela Anikulapo Kuti ~ Water No Get Enemy via Fela Kuti

Fela Anikulapo Kuti ~ Zombie via Fela Kuti

Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, (15 October 1938 – 2 August 1997), was born to a prominent Yoruba family in Abeokuta, Nigeria. One of four children, brothers Beko and Olikoye both well-respected medical doctors and a sister Dolupo, Fela grew up in a politically active home. His pan-africanism, human rights leanings and powerful lyrics, which were a defiant stance against the heavy-handedness of several military regimes, would forever define his musical body of work. In another act of defiance, he changed his last name from Ransome (which he termed a slave name) to Anikulapo (meaning “He who carries death in his pouch” – like a shaman; medicine-man). His albums which were long, hypnotic call and response musical discourses were often full of scathing songs; long awaited socio-economic and political critiques of the government and corrupt local leadership.

Fela’s lyrics denounced injustice and authoritarianism, challenging the status quo of passive resistance. Like his parents, he was not afraid to challenge the norm by speaking against social oppression. Fela’s songs were deliberately written in pidgin english, the pathos of communication throughout the African continent, because he wanted many people to listen, understand and respond to his message. One could be anglophone or francophone, in Mauritania or Mombasa, and still grasp Fela’s basic, yet urgent message even while enjoying an evening out dancing with friends. Fela used his music not only as a form of creative expression but as a political platform to galvanize the masses. Fela’s music was and still is food for the body, mind and soul.

The show Fela! offers a solid sampling of Fela favorites particularly two songs that I love, Water No Get Enemy and Zombie. Fela’s character, decked out in classic Fela regalia and those trademark handmade colorful shoes (a reporter’s visit with son Seun at home noted 40 pairs of shoes) evokes the charismatic preening, prancing, and sometimes juvenile asides that endeared the man to his fans and perhaps to some of his foes.

Fela’s father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was a Christian minister, school principal and 1st president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. While there is no mention of his dad in the show, there is much to say about Fela’s mother. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a teacher, political campaigner, and women’s rights activist. Even though Fela’s politicized music was influenced by the Black Power movement, (he was introduced to the movement through Sandra Smith (now Izsadore) during a US tour in 1969), his mother, Funmi, was instrumental in shaping his political ideology and fearless approach to tackling difficult subjects; she spoke out often against the shoddy, brutal way the military officers treated her son.

Fela’s mom: Funmilayo

Fela on Stage with his troupe …

Fela!: Mother and Son ~ A Special Embrace…

Known as the Lioness of Lisabi, for her role in helping Egba women win their struggle against the British decree that required women pay taxes, Funmilayo was never afraid about speaking her mind and had, like her son, studied abroad in England. She was one of the first women to drive a car in Nigeria. Fela’s visionary politics was aligned with his mother’s and she also championed his creative work.

Sadly, she lost her life in a terrible event that marked the beginning of the end of Fela’s musical freedom. In 1977, after a period of repeated harassments, arrests and beatings by military soldiers, Fela released the album – Zombie – which depicted the military junta in the worst possible way; as mindless order takers. 1000 soldiers were instructed to attack and destroy Fela’s Kalakuta Republic. His mother, Funmilayo, was thrown out of a 2nd floor window and died months later from trauma caused by her injuries.

The show depicts a tumultuous period of Fela’s life with sensitivity and a pervading, deep anguish over such a senseless act of revenge. The stunning set serves as an evocative backdrop to the strong, painful emotions the actors display and that the occasion wroth. The Funmi character plays a pivotal role in the show, appearing at key points in Fela’s tumultuous life to offer comfort and wisdom. Her touching introduction, early in the show, is a very powerful homage to a fearless, visionary woman ahead of her time. She also appears in an afterlife scene; both actors dressed in white clothes and perched on a hovering staircase, with Funmi giving her son a warm, welcoming embrace.

More below

Kalakuta ~ So if rascality is going to get us what we want, we will use it; because we are dealing with corrupt people, we have to be rascally with them.” Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Fela! Dancers on the Show…

Oga Fela: In a relaxed mood…

Fela and Femi’s Dancers …

Seun Kuti on stage performing…

Fela Anikulapo Kuti ~ Shakara via Fela Kuti

It would be inadmissible if I would vent my opinion publicly. Not only could I harm the artist concerned seriously because people have so much respect for me and believe in me because of my musical accomplishments. And I could also antagonize people against me, because everyone has his own taste. Fela Anikulapo Kuti

In the aftermath of the 1977 attacks, Fela and his band moved into the Crossroads Hotel to regroup and rebuild the music. The atmosphere was not the same as the destroyed Shrine nightclub were Fela regularly held his free-flowing yabis/chats, offered ritualistic libations to the ancestors, slowly building each hypnotic musical performance into a psychedelic crescendo; the dance floor packed with gyrating bodies bathed in a blue lit haze – imitating every isolated body part movement demonstrated by Fela or the dancers and singers on stage. It is true that Fela!, the show, captures the interior visual space of the old shrine. The club mood, the energetic dancing, and the interactive banter that Fela enjoyed with his audience are there, though not quite as raw; the real deal was up-close, personal and often raw…

The internet videos I’ve seen to date capture much but not all of the magic of Fela’s era. I beg to differ with the reporter who wrote that Fela’s dancers were not energetic. The dancers were definitely energetic; they built on their constant, controlled movements by exploding into powerful, rapturous dances in the final hours of Fela’s long shows. Try dancing on your knees for 3 hours and then add another 2-3 hours of dancing to pounding, scintillating, undulating afrobeat, jazz riffs. Yeah, try gyrating for 6 straight hours; they made it look easy…

In 1978, Fela married 27 women on his entourage to mark the anniversary of the destruction of the Kalakuta Republic; they were his dancers, composers, and singers and eventually he divorced all of them. He continued to produce and perform his music in the 1980s, managing several international tours while enduring both scrutiny and hostility, including an arrest in 1984.
By the 1990s, the showdowns had taken their toll and the music gradually petered out. On August 2, 1997, Fela succumbed to complications from kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDs related ailment. He is survived by his children from two marriages; sons, Femi and Seun, and daughter, Yeni , who through music and more, continue to maintain the legacy of their famous father. Another daughter, Sola, passed away about 4 years ago. The show Fela! helps ensure that the man and his music will live forever in our hearts and minds.


In nearly four decades of recording and performing his unique sound, first in 1954, when Kuti joined the Cool Cats as a singer in a highlife band, next with Koola Lobitos, then Nigeria 70, later Africa 70, and finally Egypt 80, much has been written about Fela’s life. Whether you call him a political maverick, renegade, visionary, iconoclast or more, what resonates in my memory of his performances and personality, and in many of the articles I have read, is his musical genius and defiance against the abject political machinations of corrupt 1970s-80s military regimes. Those days, fortunately, are bygone.

Armed with a saxophone, trumpet, keyboards, an entourage of musicians and dancers, and an acerbic tongue, Fela used his music to galvanize ordinary folk across the country and globally, by entertaining them with his powerful music while educating them about dirty politics. The show has done likewise, capturing the pathos of the remarkable life and struggles of Fela Anikulapo Kuti and galvanizing audiences to revisit those heady times and consider the impact. Now go see Fela! You won’t be disappointed.

All Photos via ~ Google Images, NYTimes


Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

Until Next Time…
Ask. Believe. Receive. ©
Elizabeth Obih-Frank
Mirth and Motivation
Positive Kismet


9 Comments leave one →
  1. 11/01/2010 1:48 am

    can’t wait to see the show… Fela was an original, an iconoclast… would be great if more artists today spoke boldly through their work to inspire us to look at the world around us and be more sensitive, active and empathetic. thanks for the historical background, too, on this great figure in 20th century music!

    • 18/01/2010 4:03 am

      The show is fantastic and I would see it again if feasible… Yes, I concur. Fela was definitely an original, a fearless and brilliant musician. I am happy that he is being remembered in this way. Thank you for your excellent comments! 😉

  2. 13/01/2010 4:02 pm

    This was such an awesome show. I specifically went to New York to see it and I want to go back. I grew up in Lagos in the days of Fela and it took me back to my childhood.

    The band was impeccable. They channeled Fela as far as I am concerned.

    It was amazing.

    I am glad you wrote about it.

    Iyabo Asani

    • 14/01/2010 5:59 am

      Thank you for your comments and feedback and for reminding me again that Fela was a phenomenal artist from our childhood days. I’m glad you loved the show like I did and I plan to go again. Have a great year and do come back and share other interesting shows you see. 😉

  3. Bree permalink
    14/01/2010 9:36 pm

    Thank you for the great review and first hand knowledge of Fela and the music.
    I enjoyed reading your comments and saw the show. It is like you said; phenomenal! Keep writing – I like your style. Great post. Keep it up!

    • 14/01/2010 9:42 pm

      Thank you for your comments and stop by anytime with feedback 😉


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